The rice was starting to stick to the pot. I lowered the flame on the blowtorch-like burner and rummaged for something to give it a stir. It had been a long day on the river and we hadn’t gotten back to camp until after sundown, leaving us famished. The sun was setting earlier these days, and I pulled the lantern a little closer to see into my cook kit. The first thing I found was a titanium spork, that symbol of ultralight multifunctional minimalism that had served me well on countless backpacking trips. I laughed, dropped it back into the bin and pulled out a proper spatula. Go big or go home.
Car camping is all about possibilities, whether it’s in the Adirondacks out east, the lakes of the Midwest or the empty spaces of the BLM land out west. Getting to a campsite on four wheels means you can take along a mountain bike, kayaks, hardcover pulp fiction and a cooler of microbrews. This is the camping you remember from childhood — a hissing propane lantern, creaky camp chairs and someone strumming a guitar. You’ll still go hard by day: bag a peak, bomb some single-track, kayak some whitewater. But instead of climbing into a mummy bag in a claustrophobic backpacking tent afterward, you can listen to Pink Floyd on a Bluetooth speaker and reward your efforts with a cold one.
I used to think of car camping as cheating. If you didn’t get to a campsite under your own power — by paddle, snowshoes, bicycle or on foot — you were a mere weekend warrior. Driving a car to a campsite was for the lazy and the unadventurous. One bad experience lying awake listening to a neighboring RV generator all night and I swore off drive-in campsites for good. But my recent weekend trip to the bluff country of northeastern Iowa has made me reconsider.
Getting to a campsite on four wheels means you can take along a mountain bike, kayaks, hardcover pulp fiction and a cooler of microbrews.
We loaded up a couple of kayaks and almost as much gear as the 1953 Everest expedition; instead of Sherpas, we weighed down our trusty Volvo and aimed south. My expectations were low. I figured we’d get a good paddle in and a few beers and be home in time for Masterpiece Mystery! on Sunday night. But we managed to find a campsite not far from a kayak put-in on the Upper Iowa River, string up a hammock, pitch the tent and set out for a day of paddling. I felt potential here.
The river was still high from record rainfalls weeks earlier, and we dodged strainers and eddies while gazing at the towering limestone bluffs in this anomalous corner of an otherwise flat state. We paddled until almost sunset, then shuttled the boats back up to our campsite. A few other campers had found the same spot, but my fear of sharing space with a bloated RV was allayed by the quiet murmur from another tent and the crackle of a campfire. We set to work prepping dinner and downing the first beers, well earned after a sunburned paddle. I used the massive cooler they came from, ice cold, as a chair. The sweet corn we bought at the roadside stand was blackening nicely on the grill and the rice was done. That battered picnic table I scoffed at earlier was a welcome place to tuck into our meal (with a full arsenal of proper utensils) and became the arena for a few fierce hands of five-card stud before we decided to turn in. As I laid on my back inside the cool, huge tent, I could hear the gurgling of the river and the chorus of crickets and muted laughter from the next campsite. Loads of gear, easy setup, the great outdoors: this wasn’t so bad after all.
Read on for reviews of the best car camping gear…